Above: Nik Wallenda crossing Niagara Falls in 2012 for a live TV special, reportedly watched by one billion people. He was battered by wind and heavy spray while walking 550m on a 51mm wire suspended 46m high.
Ticket sales for San Juan were slow but Karl Wallenda was a resourceful man, so he wasn’t worried. If people needed reminding how thrilling a night at the circus could be, then he would show them. He was the great Karl Wallenda, after all. The famous daredevil, who, along with his brother Herman and his wife-to-be Helen, earned an unprecedented 15-minute standing ovation at Madison Square Garden for their incredible high-wire feats.
It was Karl who had come up with the signature move that had made The Flying Wallendas famous: the seven-person chair pyramid with three levels of wire-walkers. On the first level stood four men yoked together in pairs by shoulder bars. On top of them stood two more men yoked together. On the third level was a woman who first sat, then stood, on a chair. Then there was Karl Wallenda’s trick that has never been duplicated – his handstand on the heads of two people as they stood on the wire.
As his career continued, Wallenda popularised “sky walks”, stringing cables between buildings and stadiums. He walked 1,200ft across the Tallulah Gorge in Georgia, as 30,000 people watched him do handstands 700ft up. Always, always, without a safety net. Nets, Wallenda said, were for women’s hair.
“Yes, sometimes I get afraid,” he told Today’s Health magazine. “[But] once I have taken the first step onto the wire. I am thinking of only getting to the other side... Then, when I have walked the wire, I have two strong Martinis and I forget it. You must be a little afraid, and you must want to prove that you are not afraid. I want to have control over a situation. If I die, I want it to be my fault.”
Or, in words that were Wallenda’s signature phrase, “Life is on the wire. The rest is just waiting.” So, all that was required in Puerto Rico was a small stunt to drum up some publicity, then ticket sales would improve. He made the arrangements: a walk between the two ten-storey towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel. His granddaughter Rietta, and other relatives, urged him to reconsider. Even his daredevil wife, Helen, didn’t like it. “There’s no way to measure the updraft or the gusts of wind from the sea,” his press agent warned. “Do it some other time.”
Truth was, it wasn’t just the wind. Wallenda had a double hernia, an injured collar bone and arthritis. He was recovering from heart surgery. He was also 73 years old.
But on that bright March morning, he got up early as usual and checked the weather outside. Gusts averaged 12mph, more than he would have liked (up on the wire that would be 30mph). Yet there was also reason to feel good: tickets for the circus had sold out that morning. Two hours before his walk was due to start, Helen took Karl to his hotel window and pointed to the crowds below: three thousand people lined up for blocks. “Why, Karl?” she asked. “You don’t need to do this.”
At 11am prompt, Wallenda stepped out onto the wire over Ashford Avenue carrying his 35lb, 25ft balance pole. Immediately, gusts rushed through the wind tunnel created by the two towers and banged into him. He took one step, and stopped. The crowd was silent: even down on the ground the wind could be heard knocking Karl about. Determined, he moved forward again. He kept repeating this – a step forward, followed by a pause – until he got about midway across the wire. Then he waited. The wind picked up and the cable started to sway back and forth. He pushed on again: bending his knees to curl up from the wind, pressing his weight against it.
“Sit down, grandfather, sit!” Rietta yelled from the ground. Karl crouched, yelling at his nine-man team, “Tighten it! ” Another blast of wind rattled him, his left foot slipped as he grabbed for the wire. For a second he clung to it with his right hand, his left still holding the pole – “Never, ever drop the pole” – but he was too weak. He plummeted down: his hands grasping the pole out before him in the given wire-walking position. In their room, Helen heard the screams and knew he was gone.
Karl Wallenda slammed on to the roof of a taxi, bounced once and came down on the sidewalk. “He’s still alive,” shouted a police captain. But it was a lie: a Puerto Rico law states that the deceased can’t be moved without a district attorney, and the policeman wanted to keep the crowds back. A remarkable 67-year career had been ended by massive internal injuries. Today on YouTube, that terrible morning in 1978 lives on. Even today, accustomed to murder and brutality on our computer screens, it’s a tough watch – an old man tumbling to his death in front of the crowds, the TV cameras zooming in.
Thirty-six years later, in a theatre in an amusement park in Western New York, I watched Karl Wallenda’s great-grandson Nik push out on to a high-wire riding a red bicycle whose tyres he’d removed. Wallenda wheeled across to another rider and as they balanced there, a harness was carefully placed on to their shoulders. A chair was added and a woman stepped out on to it and then performed a handstand. Rihanna’s “Diamonds” rose from the speakers. The three-person-human-pyramid-on-wheels then rode from one side of the stage to the other. The woman on the chair was Delilah Wallenda Troffer, Nik’s 61-year-old mum. The audience, who had been called upon to maintain absolute silence while this feat was underway, exploded in appreciation.
Earlier, Nik and his wife, Erendira, had climbed to the top of two sway poles – bendy flagpoles that rose vertically to the theatre’s roof – and performed a series of acrobatics before sliding dramatically to the floor. The show was billed as “Beyond The Falls: Nik Wallenda and the Wallenda Family Experience”, and starred the self-styled King of the High-Wire alongside circus acts including The Dancing Gauchos, a boleadoras-wielding husband and wife from Argentina, and Ty Tojo, a 16-year-old juggler who already held world records. It ran twice-daily, for 10 weeks this summer.
“That’s part of the lure of what I do: today at 4pm I’m risking my life,” Nik Wallenda told me. “And then again at 7pm.”
Anyone familiar with his family’s history had little reason to doubt it. In 1962 in Detroit, before Karl’s death, the Wallendas’ seven-person pyramid collapsed, leaving two family members dead and a third, Karl’s son Mario, paralysed from the waist down. A year later, Karl’s sister-in-law, Henrietta, died in a fall. Another Wallenda was electrocuted. All told, Nik has lost seven relatives to the job.
The “Beyond The Falls” part of today’s billing referred to his 2012 walk across Niagara Falls, a 45-minute drive away. By that point he already had six world records of his own, including one for hanging 250ft off the ground from a helicopter by his teeth, but it was Niagara that made his name. Daredevils had crossed its gorge before, beginning in 1859 with Jean François “Blondin” Gravelet, who did so on three occasions while carrying his top-hatted and mustachioed manager, Harry Colcord, on his back. (The final time, he was cheered on by the Prince Of Wales.)
However, all these crossings took place downstream. No one had ever walked directly over the falls before, where 200,000 cubic feet of water rush over the edge every second, crashing down at speeds of 70mph as the Niagara River drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario. Indeed, it had been 128 years since anyone attempted a crossing of any kind: a pan-border legislation banned “stunting”. It meant we would never again see the likes of the buxom and beautiful Italian daredevil Maria Spelterini, who in 1876 become the only woman to ever traverse the gorge, a feat she managed four times in three weeks — once blindfolded, once wearing her ankles and wrists manacled and once with peach baskets tied to her feet. Or Annie Taylor, who in 1901 rode over the falls in a barrel on her 63rd birthday, hoping to get rich or die trying. She failed on both counts: passing away 20 years later in the county poorhouse, without enough money for a gravestone.
Above: on 22 March, 1978, Karl Wallenda, 73, died when he fell while walking between the two ten-storey towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel, San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photograph by Gary Williams/El Nuevo Dia).
By his own reckoning, Wallenda’s walk represented a double-first: also being the longest unsupported tightrope walk in history. Completing it may not even have been the hardest part. To do so, he was compelled to wage a two-year bureaucratic battle with both US and Canadian authorities. Wallenda — who signs his autographs “Never Give Up” – marshalled arguments on all fronts. The blockbuster event would bring in $120m in tourist revenue, calculated in a report he commissioned himself. After the Parks Commission rejected his application, he went to semantics. “Stunting” didn’t apply because he wasn’t a stuntman. He was a highly trained athlete who’d walked the wire from age two.
Megastunts: Highwire Over Niagara Falls Live was a huge hit. Sold to the ABC network, the $1.3m spectacle was seen by one billion people. It was trending in nine of the top 10 Twitter rankings, with 40,000 tweets per minute. Or as Wallenda puts it, “1.3bn views of Niagara within 24 hours. Huge numbers.”
For his next trick, last year Wallenda walked over the Grand Canyon. As he took 22 minutes 54 seconds to edge along a two-inch cable suspended higher than the Empire State Building, Discovery Channel broke record ratings. Thirteen million people saw Skywire Live in the US, commanding, in terms we judge things by these days, 70 per cent of all TV-related comment on social media. (It was up against Mad Men’s season finale, too.)
Many of those comments concerned Wallenda’s own running commentary, a testament of his Christian beliefs being broadcast over his microphone. “Golly, wind. Go away in the name of Jesus. Thank you, Lord. Thank you for calming that cable, Lord. Oh, yeah. That’s my saviour. That’s Jesus.”
(Nowadays, TV events like this can yield some unusual talking points. There was much fuss concerning the trousers Wallenda wore — not entirely flattering stonewashed jeans, it has to be said – which he bought on sale for $69.99. They were decried on Twitter as “mum jeans” that were “flapping around” so much they must be a hazard. Makers Buffalo Jeans renamed the style “The Nik”.)
This November, Wallenda will walk between two skyscrapers in Chicago — the Marina City Building and the Leo Burnett Building. This will put him into an icy funnel coming off Lake Michigan (Chicago, of course, being the “Windy City”). “His other co-star will be the weather,” Wallenda’s manager Winston Simone says. “We’ve been up on both those buildings and we were looking at each other going, ‘Really?’” Skyscraper Live With Nik Wallenda will air live in 224 countries, 46 more than his Grand Canyon walk.
Above: Karl Wallenda struggles during his fatal performance in Puerto Rico. (Photograph by Gary Williams/El Nuevo Dia).
Another goal is to walk the 4,000ft aerial stretch between the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building in New York. That would be about 20 times the distance between the Twin Towers, a space the French aerialist Philippe Petit crossed in 1974, during a rogue walk that was later the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary Man On Wire. Though Wallenda’s plan was recently dealt a blow by the city’s “top cop”, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly. “I don’t think it’d be wise in this city,” he said. “We have thousands of New Yorkers who can be put at risk.”
Yet when I mentioned this to Wallenda, he brushed it off. “We’ll get there. You’ve got to chip away. A lot of what I do is politics. I have good relationships with lots of politicians, especially in New York. And Commissioner Kelly’s out of that position now. Honestly, just like the Chicago walk, we’ll draw the attention of the world on the city. You can’t put a price-tag on that exposure.”
London is another city on his bucket list. “My dream would be to go over the Thames, from one side to the other,” he said. “Nobody’s been over there to do anything like that.”
The Wallendas have been performing for seven generations. Even before a teenage Karl Wallenda answered an advert for a “hand balancer with courage” in his native Germany around the end of World War I, his great-grandfather Johannes was an acrobat. So was his namesake, his grandfather Karl. His father, Engelbert, was both a celebrated animal trainer and an aerialist.
The origin of the circus as we think of it today is attributed to Philip Astley, an English cavalry officer who, in 1768, brought together acrobats, clowns and trick horse-riders under one London amphitheatre roof. Touring circuses really got popular in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, not least in the US, where The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey – The Flying Wallendas headlined with both for years – drew crowds wherever they rode into town. After World War II, other leisure-time interests, animal rights concerns and the rise of TV meant circuses played to ever-smaller audiences. Today “daredevil” entertainment centres on extreme sports.
In 1994, Nik’s mum Delilah even wrote a book called The Last of the Wallendas. Chapter One was called “The Circus Is Dying”. “In today’s fast-paced world, people prefer to sit at home in a La-Z-Boy and watch TV rather than drive to a live performance,” she wrote. “Electronics are the culprit. They cause laziness in consumers who’d rather play electronic games. My husband and I are going the route of working cruise ships.”
Alex Wallenda, son of Nik’s uncle Tino and who performs with The Flying Wallendas, says in the documentary The Show Must Go On: “It’s always at the back of your mind, that you’re wondering how long can you sustain performing. Is there actually going to be a business out there?” The 2013 film presents an elegiac portrait of fleapit Southern circuses and makeshift fairs that serves as sharp contrast to Nik’s TV spectaculars.
Above: In 2011, Karl’s great-grandson Nik, the seventh generation of Flying Wallendas, completed the very same walk in Puerto Rico as a tribute. (Photography by Agencia EFE/REX).
“We’re at the bottom of the entertainment scale,” Tino says in the movie. “You get this: ‘wow, the Wallendas were great. Too bad you had that tragedy...’ People think we just disappeared.”
TV may have killed the circus, but Nik was smart enough to realise it could also be his ally. With people’s attention all over the place, TV producers are desperate for something that will make us stay tuned in – even if that something is a 35-year-old father of three walking a tightrope in mum jeans.
“They all want live events,” Winston Simone told me. “[US network] CBS has just added another night of live football. On Saturdays, NBC have given up: they re-run shows that were on during the week. Nik’s Grand Canyon walk was one of those classic things: ‘Holy shit! You’ve got to turn on Discovery! You’re not going to believe this...’”
“The problem with the circus is it’s been done the same way for hundreds of years,” Wallenda says. “I’m walking the same wire my great-grandfather did 100 years ago, but I’m making it modern. Social media and TV are the avenues you take to build a brand. Not, ‘OK, you’re going to sit in a tent and eat popcorn and smell the elephants.’” (As well as the live mic, Wallenda wears two cameras for his TV walks, one pointed down and one ahead. We see what he sees: it’s pretty wild.)
At the end of his Beyond The Falls show, Nik Wallenda joined his family and the rest of the performers on the side of the theatre stage. In a well-rehearsed speech, he encouraged everyone to stick around to buy merchandise and get autographs. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Western New York! You know, the first time I visited this area I was only four years old. My parents were performing in Buffalo and they brought me and my sister down to see Niagara Falls. I looked across and thought how cool would it be if I walked a wire across there? You see, I started walking the wire when I was only two, with my mom’s assistance, about two feet off the ground. Actually, my mom was six months pregnant with me walking the wire, so I actually started at minus six months...” This fact drew gasps from the crowd.
“What I didn’t know when I was only two years old was that it was going to take changing two laws in two countries to get permission to do that walk. And I couldn’t have done it without the love and support of you all, right here in Western New York. So, I want to say: thank you, Western New York!”
Before the applause had died down, Wallenda launched into a plug for another walk – one that was taking place the next day. “I want to take a moment to let everyone know that tomorrow evening at 8pm I’ll be doing a walk longer than Niagara Falls and almost the same height, only 45 minutes from here at the Erie County Fair,” he said. “And I would love to see each and every one of you there.”
I drove out to Erie County the next morning. The fair turned out to be one of the biggest of its kind in America, taking place over 275 acres and two weeks every summer and drawing a crowd of more than a million people. As well as a vast fairground, there was a programme of live music, a veteran’s day parade, a Bengal tiger enclosure, an Indian village and various livestock events that included a poultry dressing contest and something called Swifty Swine Racing Pigs. This year, it was celebrating its 175th anniversary and much was being made of Wallenda’s appearance, his Niagara Falls walk still a local talking point. Wallenda had been here two nights before, arriving at midnight with a crew that included his chief rigger Terry Troffer and lead engineer Mike Troffer – his dad and his uncle – and working till 7am to put up the wire.
In the vivid morning sunlight that cable appeared to stretch the entire length of the fair. It was held in place by two $2.1m construction cranes and was stomach-turningly high, especially compared to the wire at the theatre. Wallenda’s commitment to setting up his own stunts, and to work in general, is impressive. No wonder, you might think: if you were about to attempt to walk the length of four football pitches while balancing on something roughly the diameter of a five-pence piece, you’d want to check the thing was put up right, too. But it’s more than that.
“I’m at a point in my career where I don’t need to stay out until seven in the morning rigging,” Wallenda said. “I had 20 riggers, plus my father, plus my uncle. They can handle it. But it’s what I love doing. And if you’re going to do it, do it to the best of your ability. The management at the fair were blown away. ‘What are you doing here?’ And I come in driving a box truck... ‘You’re driving the truck!’ They’re used to rock stars who pull up in a limo, do the concert and drive off. But I don’t live my life like that.”
“My motto is never give up. My goal is never be out-worked by anyone,” he continued. “America was built on that. The American Dream: go pursue it, do it. But it’s not that way anymore. People today are so negative. But I have that determination of, no matter what, I’m going to do this and I’m not going to stop until I get what I want... until I build a name the whole world knows about.”
Wallenda isn’t really at home to self-doubt. “I genuinely believe if I wanted to be, I could be president of the United States.”
Nikolas Wallenda grew up in a working-class area in Sarasota, on the southwestern coast of Florida. He says his earliest memory is stepping out on to a wire strung out across his back yard with the absolute conviction he’d walk across it. He was already used to seeing his parents doing similar. He also loved fairy tales: the story of Karl Wallenda fired up his imagination. He learned how Karl’s father Engelbert was a tyrant who threw Karl, aged four, to the ground so hard that he never regained hearing in his right ear. But he was also a hard-working innovator. The first to bring a flying trapeze act, something developed in the US, to Europe. Karl apparently inherited his aptitude. One story goes that when their circus wagon broke down in a German village during World War I, Karl was teased because the Wallenda name was Czech in origin, not German. So he successfully challenged his bullies to a wager: he climbed the church steeple and did a handstand on the revolving weathercock. He was nine.
In 1928, John Ringling of The Ringling Brothers Circus invited Karl Wallenda and his troupe to perform in the US. These were dangerous times for the circus. In 1942 in Ohio, a fire in a menagerie tent killed 36 animals. Two years later, 168 audience members died and 700 were injured in a fire in Connecticut. Nik Wallenda’s grandmother Jenny joined the troupe in 1947, marrying Alberto Zoppe, an Italian bareback rider. You can see her riding horses in Cecil B DeMille’s Oscar-winning 1952 film The Greatest Show On Earth. By 1964, Jenny’s teenage daughter Delilah – Nik’s mum – became the girl in the chair atop the seven-person pyramid. At four, Nik Wallenda was performing with Zoppe, playing a clown stuffed into a pillowcase and chasing the grown-up clowns around the ring on a baby-unicycle. “I loved the applause,” Wallenda says. “But family was a huge part of it – spending time with them and making them proud.”
By the time he was a teenager, the clowning had stopped. Now he was washing dishes, mowing lawns and mopping floors. With the circus world in decline, it was all they could do to stop their home being repossessed. “Some weeks I work 60 or 70 hours,” he writes in his 2013 autobiography Balance. “Those are my favourite weeks.”
In 1997, the Wallendas got a call from uncle Tino. A circus in Detroit had invited the family to recreate the seven-person pyramid in the city of the fatal collapse, 35 years earlier. Urged on by Nik, who took part, they successfully completed it 38 times over 17 days. The resulting coverage – Larry King Live, CNN – suggested to Nik there might be life in the circus game yet.
“I thought that was going to be my last public appearance,” he says. “I was going to move on and go to med school, and become a pediatrician. But I remember getting on that wire and seeing 100 cameras underneath me. I thought, I don’t know that our industry is dying. I just think it’s changing.”
“That’s when I set out to do big things like Karl did. The man who said, ‘Life is on the wire, everything else is just waiting.’”
To walk a wire as long as the one at the Erie County Fair, it needs to be supported by guy ropes. This walk required 54 such ropes that dangle down on either side of the 1,400ft wire. In turn, they required 108 volunteers to pull them tight: men that Wallenda’s team had recruited from local fire departments. Wallenda’s own men would move among them, keeping an eye out and picking up any slack. At 4pm, Wallenda called a team meeting in a tent backstage.
“As far as ropes go, you guys are the ones keeping that cable steady,” he told them. “Those guys are just placeholders. So know that. Don’t be scared to tell someone to take a step back. Just do it nice and calm.”
Wallenda’s family were here, too. His three children Yanni, 16, Amadaos, 13, and Evita, 11, as well as his mother, father, wife and uncle. In his autobiography, Wallenda is surprisingly frank about the ups and downs being married to a daredevil can entail. Erendira Wallenda comes from a circus background as well. Their families met when Nik was three, and she was two weeks old. (Naturally, when it came time to propose, he did so on the wire, before a sold-out audience in Montreal.)
“Every couple fights, so we’re backstage and I’m, like, ‘Don’t you talk to me!’” Erendira explained. “Then the spotlight is on you and you act like ‘I love you!’ But this is the life we understand. If I had a normal life with Nik doing what he does, I’d be a nervous wreck.”
Certainly, his children seem OK with it. “What do I think of what dad does?” Evita shrugged. “Hmmm: it’s kinda boring.”
Wallenda stepped outside to check how the rest of the set-up was going. Someone approached him and asked for a photo. “I’m going for a meeting right now,” he said. “If you want to run with me, take it as I move.”
“I just saw you at Darien Lake [amusement park]!” shouted someone else. “Thank you,” Wallenda said.
“And your mom...”
“God bless her! Holy cow!”
Wallenda spoke with one of the fair’s technicians. He’d planned to respond to tweets from the audience while on the walk, for which he required an in-ear monitor. But this request had got lost and now no monitor was available. The technician offered him a radio. “I don’t need a radio,” he said, crossly.
At 5pm, he was introduced on stage by Tyron McFarlan, sometime ringmaster for The Ringling Brothers Circus who serves as his intro man. “Eight-times Guinness World Record-holder for his incredible feats on the wire and beyond, including – get this, ladies and gentlemen – hanging beneath a soaring helicopter 280ft above the ground by trapeze using only his teeth! Hailed as the greatest daredevil of our time, ladies and gentlemen! In a minute, you’re going to be graced with this young man’s presence...”
Wallenda then came round the corner in transport that had been laid on by the fair. A carriage pulled by six enormous Clydesdale horses. He bounded on stage and ran through his speech about walking the wire aged two, and did a Q&A with McFarlan. The former ringmaster asked him about nerves. “You know, they’re definitely involved,” he said. “But I’ve trained for this my entire life. For Niagara Falls, I trained in winds of 90mph, so that I knew what the worst case was going to be. But what you call fear, I call respect. Respect of the wire, respect of the elements.”
As he walked backstage, his manager slapped him on the back. “Those are some big fucking horses, Nik,” he said, grinning.
In 2006, Nik Wallenda went to see David Blaine perform Drowned Alive. The magician was submerged in a water-filled, eight-foot sphere in front of New York’s Lincoln Center for seven days and seven nights. Blaine spotted Wallenda in the crowd and gave him the big thumbs-up. The two had known each other for a while, but here he was introduced to Blaine’s TV producer. In turn, she introduced him to her husband, a manager in the music business, who became Wallenda’s manager. The two wondered how they might use Blaine’s example to do their own TV specials.
Above: Nik followed conquering Niagara Falls by crossing the Grand Canyon last year. He took 23 minutes to walk the 427m on a 5cm cable suspended 457m high. The first person to ever complete the stunt, Nik did so without a tether or safety net.
The way Wallenda tells it, he had been dreaming of crossing Niagara Falls for as long as he can remember. He means this literally: a man in a billowy shirt and satin trousers visiting him in his sleep. “Walk over the falls,” the performer instructs, as they gaze out over a spectacular horseshoe-shaped waterfall. “Walk over the falls.” This man reveals himself to be Karl Wallenda, whose fall came 10 months before Nik’s birth.
Wallenda jumped through hoops to get the authorities to change their no-stunts policy for his Niagara Falls walk, suffering various financial and other setbacks along the way. But ultimately his cause was probably won by the city’s lacklustre economics. In the last 50 years, it had lost most of its industry, its glamour and about half its population.
“Not even Marilyn Monroe brought the attention here that I’ve brought,” Wallenda told USA Today, referring to the star of the 1953 film Niagara. “Anyone who says this doesn’t help Niagara Falls, they’re fools.”
Even with the clearance, one thing nearly derailed him. Apparently instigated by seeing Wallenda do a fake stumble on a walk marking the opening of a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! museum days before Niagara was due to happen, TV executives insisted he wear a tether. We can’t broadcast a fatality, they said.
Aside from taking away from the walk’s impact, Wallenda didn’t know anything about tethers. Now he had to make one. “It freaked me out,” he says. “It was more of a hindrance – every step I take, it’s dragging. It’s scary. If it got caught, it would have jerked me back.”
He made his resentment known in interviews and even toyed with the idea of unhooking himself once he was out over the Falls. Not much they could do about it then! But ABC made him sign a contract enforcing the tethering term. There was also the issue with God: If I’m to respect His integrity and call myself a man of honour, Wallenda told himself, I must adhere to the restriction, no matter how repugnant it might be. Wallenda’s faith brings up some interesting issues. No, he doesn’t believe that God’s hand is holding him up on the wire. Neither is he testing God by putting himself in death-defying situations. “It’s just who I am,” he says.
Still, it’s a talking point. “Well done Jesus for getting that bloke across... safely,” tweeted noted atheist Ricky Gervais. “I bet he feels silly for wasting so much time practising now”.
“I’ve had people who have watched the TV thing and said, ‘I hate how you talk to God,’” Wallenda says. “My answer is: well, turn the volume down. It’s not as though I’m trying to preach to anyone or change anyone’s belief. I’m not shaking The Bible in people’s faces.” Perhaps, I suggested, it gets a reaction because even very religious celebrities are often unwilling to discuss their beliefs. “You’re right,” he said. “Most people are scared to voice their opinion, of anything. I talk to God. That’s just how I stay calm while I’m on the wire.” For his Grand Canyon walk, and his upcoming skyscraper walk in Chicago, Wallenda went with another TV company. No tether required.
With two hours to go before his walk at the Erie County Fair, Wallenda gathered all the firemen together with some other volunteers, and gave them their instructions vis-à-vis holding the guy ropes. “No pictures,” he said. “Don’t get your cellphones out. That’s not fun for me. People want to start taking photos, but it’s important you are focused on what you are doing.”
Backstage, the Wallendas spent the final minutes before showtime sitting about and chatting. “I’m going to start ironing Nik’s costume,” said Erendira. At 7:45, Wallenda hugged and kissed his wife. Then did it again. He called out to daughter Evita, sitting at a trestle table playing with a toy and talking with friends. “I’m going.” (She didn’t even look up.) Then he set off for the lift and Uncle Mike who’d take him up to the wire.
The job of any high-wire performer is to remind themselves that what they do is no big deal while simultaneously reminding everybody else that it is. “Fear makes it extremely dangerous,” Wallenda says. “There are some people on the wire who are fearful. Their day will come real quick.”
Wallenda is compact and strong thanks to two hours of weights and an hour of cardio, five days a week. He practises his walks using wind machines and, in the case of Niagara Falls, being sprayed by hoses. But the biggest preparation is mental. “I just zone out,” he says. “That’s how you prepare because that’s when the adrenaline builds. I don’t have to go into a quiet place or anything like that. I like being around family and friends. My heart rate slows down before these events. The same thing happens with David Blaine.”
When Erendira drove him to the Grand Canyon, he fell asleep in the car. His wife woke him up, “You’re on in 45 minutes.”
The balance pole he carries gives him a lower centre of gravity. The art is to keep everything on your body balanced while moving just your legs. “From your elbows to your hands you’re working to keep that balance, and keep directly over that wire,” he says. “The challenge comes when there’s winds and such, and its shaking underneath your feet.” Wallenda seems to slide, rather than step, along the wire. Toe-heel. Toe-heel. Toe-heel. He deliberately and frequently changes his pace. “I need to vary my cadence, slow down and speed up, otherwise the cable will bounce,” he says. On his feet, he wears lace-up leather boots with elk-skin soles that resemble ballet shoes, made by his mother.
He knows everyone’s really watching to see if he falls off. On this he likes to quote Evel Knievel, a family friend who performed with Karl Wallenda at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium in the Seventies (“See them before THEY DIE!!” advertised the posters) and whom he met. “Sixty per cent of fans want to see me, 30 per cent want to see an accident and 10 per cent want to see me killed.”
“It’s not like I go up there and go, ‘I could die right now,’” Wallenda says, “but I know that in the back of my mind.”
Scientists claim the existence of a risk-taking gene, a DNA variation in one of the brain’s receptors that restricts the production of dopamine – people who have it really need to raise the bar to experience excitement. Nik doesn’t know about that, but he does believe his family shares an inherited advantage to wire walking. “It came a bit easier to me because of genetics,” he says. “Recently, my three-year-old nephew came down to Florida to visit and he saw me practising with my sister and my mom, and wanted to try it out. The moment he stepped on that wire he did it right. There’s definitely something in our family after so long that makes us wire-walkers.”
However, none of Nik’s three children has opted to follow him into the family business. The future doesn’t look particularly rosy for The Flying Wallendas, and other relatives still performing under the Wallenda name. “When Karl passed away, there was no family leader,” Nik says. “So we split into groups. There was my mom who was always The Fabulous Wallendas, she had her group. And my uncle, who had The Flying Wallendas. And my mom’s cousin, who was The World Famous Wallendas. And that’s where the challenges come. You become competition to one another. When I took over the business, I thought, ‘How am I going to compete with another Wallenda that walks a wire, does the same thing?’ I really tried to stay out of the circus world. Let them do the circus stuff. I want to go in another direction.”
This hasn’t always gone down well with the rest of them. “It’s jealousy and, I would say, bitterness,” Wallenda says, “but if you’re competitors, you’re competitors. I wish we could all work together. But you’re handed a deck of cards, and it’s up to you what you do with it. What I tried to do was this: we’ve had The Fabulous Wallendas, The Great Wallendas, The Flying Wallendas. So, I went, ‘What about Nik Wallenda?’ Karl Wallenda wasn’t any of those. I want it to be about Nik Wallenda.”
Above a sea of camera phones, flashing fairground rides and stalls selling deep-fried tacos and caramel apple sundaes, Nik Wallenda completed his Eerie County Fair walk in a fraction under 30 minutes.
In the absence of the headset needed for the audience tweets, Tyron McFarlan improvised by asking him questions over the stage PA, until a point came in the walk when the noise of the fair generators prevented Wallenda from hearing him. Afterwards, Winston Simone ushered him into a press conference. He was asked how it compared to Niagara Falls.
“You know what? I take every event the same,” he said. “I’ve lost seven family members doing what I do, so you can’t take anything for granted. My great-grandfather lost his life in one of the easiest walks he did in his career, so I take them all extremely seriously. The focus is the same. The nerves were the same leading up to it.”
Someone else wondered about the view. “It’s awesome to be able to see all the people,” Wallenda grinned. “Somebody at one point said, ‘Fall!’ I was able to pick him out. His friends were, like, ‘He’s looking right at you!’ I was, like, ‘Yeah, I’m looking at you.’”
Then he was off to shake hands with senators and VIPs and later appeared to sign T-shirts and books. The queue ran into hundreds and now it was dark. But Wallenda sat there pumping handshakes, posing for selfies and signing “Never Give Up”.
“What I do is about making sure that my family legacy lives on,” he said. “And hopefully making my great-grandfather Karl proud.”
Skyscraper Live With Nik Wallenda is on Discovery at 12am GMT on 2 November